Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Kona Takahashi Film Study: Is He the Next One?

Who is this young kid? 

You'll know soon.

He's Kona Takahashi, the Lions 2014 first round draft pick, and the 18 year old kid whom Saitama believes will be their ace in 3-4 years.

Kona first rose to prominence as a 16 year old at the 2013 Summer Koshien by leading his high school, Maebashi Ikeui to the championship. Takahashi put his team on his back and caught the eye of many pundits for his tremendous efforts. For our American readers who aren't familiar with Japanese Baseball culture, the Summer Koshien is the National High School Baseball tournament that is one of the most popular events in Japan every year, so Takahashi is already familiar with the big stage. This takes place inside the same building that the Hanshin Tigers play in, forcing the NPB team to play a few home games from the Orix Buffaloes' nearby Kyocera Dome.

Takahashi was one of six players taken unopposed in last year's draft and with the way it played out, it's fair to say that he was considered the 3rd or 4th best pitching prospect in the draft.

Takahashi's measurements read 6'2", 188 pounds. Personally, I'd like to see him bulk up a little more but as an American, I'm not sure if that's completely necessary.

His pitching arsenal includes a fastball that sits in the high 80s and tops out around 92. His secondary pitches include a full range of breaking pitches with a slider, splitter, and curveball. Experts say that Takashshi could end up multiple plus pitches by the time he is ready.

Now it's time for our film study, because ni-gun highlights are for the most part nowhere to be found, we'll be taking a look at Takahashi's Koshien outings.

Because Takahashi made his ichi-gun debut on Sunday, I'll be jotting down a few thoughts on how he looked under my thoughts from his film study.


Thoughts before Debut: Most Japanese pitchers follow the idea of "pitching backwards" while their American counterparts lead with their fastball and then bring in the cheese to vanquish the opposing batters, the Japanese usually lead with their breaking stuff and use the fastball as more of a way of keeping hitters honest. Kona Takahashi appeared to follow this school of thought during his time in high school. 

His fastball wasn't impressive in terms of velocity, but when it hits the corners to cause the hitters to freeze or get jammed, the pitch can be quite effective, especially after throwing his other great off speed pitches.

This clip was taken from what appears to be a pre-season game played in March and what is seen from this clip is that clearly, Takahashi has bulked up a good amount since that legendary performance in the 2013 Summer Koshien. That was to be expected, but the even better news is that his fastball appears to have vastly improved (though it's impossible to be sure without radar gun readings) with this more imposing frame. His fastball doesn't need to be pure gas, but as long as it can be a solid out-pitch is what I'll be looking for.

Thoughts After Debut: Watching his debut, he was throwing in high 140s km/h, a 10 km/h increase from his glory days of the 2013 Koshien. Not only was he throwing his fastball harder, he was also throwing it often, which isn't necessarily a good thing, which I'll explain in the next pitch analysis.


Thoughts before Debut: When you watch raw highlights of Takahashi, this is the very first pitch that will standout. The velocity of the pitch would hover around 100 km/h during his high school days and he'd throw it often early in the count to get ahead in the account. That shows you how much confidence he has in the pitch.

I wasn't seeing the swing causing a lot of swings and misses but hitters rarely were able to stay on it and were often times completely frozen and were left to hope the pitch would float out of the strike zone. The one thing I tend to worry about when it comes to pitchers who rely on big curveballs is throwing it too often to the point where hitters can sit on the pitch and make it a liability.

On the flip side, if he can stay ahead of the cat and mouse game by successfully mixing up his pitches, he can make his fastball better by using his curveball because of the large variations in velocity between the two pitches.

Thoughts After Debut: After watching so much of Takahashi during his 2013 Koshien run, I was shocked to see little to no use of his curveball. When he was in high school, he used it just as much as Takayuki Kishi. I wasn't the only one who noticed, Japan Times writer Jason Coskrey, who was on the Japanese Baseball Weekly Podcast with John Gibson and they both agreed that the Lions had the training wheels on him.

He was "nibbling" on the corners and unfortunately he was missing a lot which got him into trouble against the Hawks hitters. I would like to see much more use of his curveball in his next outing with the ichi-gun.


Thoughts before debut: When looking at his slider, we're gonna be looking at different variations of this pitch. The above gif is a great example of a quality slider of Takahashi. This was taken from an earlier game in the 2013 Summer Koshien which happened to be a game where Takahashi was completely untouchable. 

A big part of why he was so dominant was because of this pitch, when used perfectly, it will be a long day for an opposing lineup. When his slider has this type of action and tails away from a right handed hitter, it can be a great pitch for him. I believe that as Takahashi goes on in his career, this will be the pitch that decides whether he has a good outing or a great outing. 

We see this all the time with Clayton Kershaw, his fastball and curveball will usually be working for him, but if his slider is working, we know he's gonna flirt with a no hitter. Even if the slider isn't working on that given day, Takahashi has enough potential plus pitches to a quality outing even when you don't have your best stuff, which is always the mark of a true ace.

Thoughts After Debut: This was another pitch that I don't remember seeing featured often by Takahashi. I remember seeing him get one strikeout thanks to this pitch but other than that, he used it quite sparingly. He threw a lot of fastballs and splitters mostly. You have to throw this pitch more often. Yes, there's a lot of bad things that can happen if you hang a slider (they usually end up in the next prefecture), but it's part of what makes Takahashi, so you have to let him throw it.


Thoughts before Debut: I know, that pitch doesn't seem to fit the characteristics of your typical splitter, a splitter usually goes down that much but not THAT much, it looks more like an overhand curve if anything. That's what I thought, until I saw the close up camera angle on the release.

There you have it! Now you can see that it's definitely a splitter. Index and middle finger have a fastball grip but more spread out across the ball, and there's no flicking of the wrist to show that it's a breaking ball. Here's another example of the splitter.

This particular pitch was thrown a couple ticks higher than the previous example, I think this pitch looks more like your typical splitter effect, you expect a bad ball swing on a ball in the dirt and that was the action induced from the batter. For that reason, I'd say that this example is a much better endorsement of his splitter and just shows how foolish he can make hitters look. I think this pitch has a chance to be at the level of a Shohei Otani or Masahiro Tanaka splitter. It's that devastating.

Thoughts After Debut: Ginjiro Sumitani allowed him to throw this pitch a lot and at times it looked very good with inducing ground balls (though some were unlucky and found holes) but at other times he didn't get the action on his splitter that we're so used to seeing. We'll have to see what happens against another opponent.


Overall: An 18 year old with this kind of promise is really something to see. It's clear that in only two years since his heroics on the sacred dirt of the Koshien, the Lions have done quite a lot to make him improve as a pitcher. 

He didn't look overwhelmed during his debut against the Softbank Hawks and that was the one thing I took out of it. His command was spotty, he was nibbling at a bad rate, but I believe in two years time, we'll be talking about this kid in the same way many are talking about Takahiro Norimoto for Rakuten.


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